Councilor denies conflict of interest as South Portland approves community garden plan

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SOUTH PORTLAND — The City Council on Wednesday voted 6-1 to allow a nonprofit group to establish a community garden on city-owned land on Sawyer Street.

But councilors were split on a provision that would require the city to reimburse the group up to $10,000 if the city terminates the five-year lease for a portion of land at the former Hamlin School. 

The 4-3 vote for the provision prompted one resident to accuse Councilor Patti Smith of having a conflict of interest.

Smith is the president of the Community Garden Collective. In two previous workshops on the proposal, she sat with and spoke on behalf of the group.

But on Wednesday night, Smith did not recuse herself from the vote and did not publicly acknowledge her association with the group.

“It’s been out there and in the written materials,” Smith said after the meeting.

Mayor Rosemarie De Angelis defended Smith after the vote and seemed prepared to address the conflict-of-interest allegation. A councilor must recuse oneself only if they stand to personally profit from a specific action, she said.

While supportive of the project, Councilors Maxine Beecher, Tom Blake and Al Livingston voted to remove the reimbursement provision from the contract, because it was included without council discussion or consensus.

“This clause is not good, sound property management,” Blake said. “I really don’t like it at all.”

Resident Al DiMillo said the contract was a bad deal for the city, since it created a financial liability. He suggested the city charge the group rent of $5,000.

After Smith voted on the measure, he shouted “conflict of interest” from the floor.

Community Garden Collective member Peggy Stewart said the group plans to charge gardeners up to $35 dollars a plot, although the venture is expected to operate at an annual loss of about $1,200.

But the reimbursement provision was needed, Stewart said, because the group is pursuing grant funding for the project to cover that loss. If the city terminates the lease, the group would likely have to pay back those grants.

Assistant City Manager Erik Carson said the likelihood of the city selling the property within the next five years is highly unlikely.

De Angelis expressed frustration when the discussion continued for more than an hour about what she called a “minuscule” amount of money. “It’s not even worth the time we’ve spent discussing it,” she said.

Councilors across the board, however, supported the community garden concept – including Beecher, who voted against it and said she was offended by De Angelis’ easy dismissal of her concerns.

Over the summer, the Community Garden Collective plans to build raised garden beds that will be divided into about 40, 10-by-10-foot plots, an effort estimated by the group to cost nearly $25,000.

The group plans to make the plots available next spring. If the project is successful, members hope to create additional gardens in other parts of the city.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or Follow him on Twitter: @randybillings.